As recently as seven months ago, Ashish Mittal was one of ANZ’s top bankers in Singapore and co-head of the firm’s commodities business globally. Now he’s doing something completely different – and it isn’t fintech.
Mittal has left the finance sector altogether to buy and manage SACAC Counselling, a 44-year-old company that provides counselling and psychotherapy support to adults and children in Singapore.
“After 25 years in finance I wanted to try something new and also give back to society,” says Mittal. “A lot of bankers in my position go down the well-trodden start-up route, but by taking over an established business I haven’t faced the typical start-up pressures. I’m not battling to sign my first client or constantly worrying about revenue.”
Instead Mittal says he’s been able to focus straightaway on expanding his business and improving its customer service – the stuff of pipedreams for the average banker-turned-entrepreneur.
“My wife is a counsellor, so I understand some of the nuances of the sector. But coming from another industry, banking, I can also spot the growth and profit opportunities that the insiders might not see,” says Mittal.
“For example, Singapore is a developed market for counselling services, but most counsellors work in small set-ups. By contrast, we can fill a need for flexible seven-days-a-week services.”
He says SACAC Counselling also plans to expand regionally. “In a country like Indonesia, there’s a real lack of quality counselling services and a growing professional market that needs better access to it.”
Counselling is one of the few sectors that’s “virtually recession proof”, says Mittal. “Work-related stress, for example, is rising. There are no easy jobs now, so we have clients across many sectors, including banking.”
“Stress is all relative. Working in a bank feels incredibly stressful to you, even if people elsewhere might be doing even more demanding jobs. That’s where counselling can help – banking professionals often just need someone to talk to who doesn’t judge them or compare them to others.”
As director of SACAC Counselling, Mittal says his job is to provide the firm with “strategic direction”. “When you’re running a company, one of the main challenges in my view is to employ people who are better than you in their areas of the business. I’m constantly using all the people management skills that I learnt in banking.”
Mittal’s time in financial services also equipped him to deal with his sudden career change last year. “That’s because I’ve got a track record of establishing new businesses within banks from the ground up,” he explains.
Back in 2000 Mittal moved from his native India to Dubai to set up Standard Chartered’s structured products business there. “I was pretty much the only person in the Middle East in a dedicated structured sales role. I built a solid team for the three years I was there, and we were way ahead of the game.”
“I could have stayed in the Middle East for the rest of my career, but instead of continuing there I took a more exciting opportunity as Stan Chart’s deputy head of markets in Indonesia.”
By 2004 Mittal was in Singapore as the bank’s head of Southeast Asia sales for financial markets. Five years later came another big career change: he was appointed global head of commodity sales.
“Stand Chart didn’t previously have a commodities business and I’d never worked in commodities. The glass wasn’t half empty; it was totally empty,” says Mittal. “But not being a traditional commodities guy actually worked to my advantage.”
“The experienced players were mainly focused on selling commodities pricing solutions, but I used my structuring skills to combine finance and hedging solutions, for example. In a relatively short time, we went from zero to about half a billion dollars in revenues by 2012.”
In that year, however, Stan Chart’s wider business was going through “challenging times”. “I could see the writing on the wall for all the restructuring that the bank subsequently went through.”
Mittal joined ANZ because it too was set to expand its Asia commodities operations. “The business grew four-fold between 2012 and 2015, before the bank’s overall strategy reverted to being more Australian focused,” he says.
“If you want to keep your career exciting in banking, you must always take new opportunities in new parts of the sector. I’ve always tried to change things up.”